Canada by Richard Ford (Bloomsbury – June, 2012)
First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.
So opens Richard Ford’s Canada.
The story, narrated by a sixty-something Dell Parsons, looks back at the events that began when he was fifteen in Great Falls, Montana—a town Ford has used before in his fiction and which he has evidently visited. (I recommend Googling the town for a visual reference). For Ford, the grinding mediocrity and sameness of the geography acts as the all-American litmus test for what is ‘normal’ and ‘normal’ is a word Ford uses again and again in this book. In a town where nothing changes and the patterns are rhythms so entrenched, you would think that any transgression was impossible. And yet it is here that Ford sets his family and the course of events leading to their own great fall.
The descriptions of the family members leave us in no uncertain terms as to who these people are as Dell performs a methodical post-mortem on his family. Ford draws them in aching, transparent detail; each sentence works hard towards illuminating the workings of the family, not only for the laconic Dell, but for the reader too. In a more sparse style than we might be used to from Ford, he walks us around the family home and through the lives of its inhabitants with a confidence that does away with any need for exhibitionism. On his father, the charming, hapless Bev Parons, Dell speculates;
... he may have been in the grip of some great, unspecified gravity, as many GIs were. He spent the rest of his life wrestling with that gravity, puzzling to stay positive and afloat, making bad decisions that truly seemed good for a moment, but ultimately misunderstanding the world he'd returned home to and having that misunderstanding become his life.
Dell acts as some sort of emotional windsock for his parents, something he is quite good at. Ford allows Dell some desperately structured interests through which he likes to negotiate his experience; chess and bees. The juxtaposition of his these little hobbies and the reality of his world unraveling all around him create a terrible anxiety in the reader as who Dell is and what the world is, constantly collide.
In Canada, or rather a hollowed-out-shell of a town in Saskatchewan, he has to try and make sense of the chaos of the adult world. He is in a fundamentally dangerous environment shot through violence and transgression. Once he gives up on his futile attempts to get back to school, he understands that he is no longer the boy he was and that his plans for the future, if not derailed, need to be shelved for the time being;
It seemed to me, cast off in the dark, that I was not exactly who I’d been before: a well-rounded boy possibly on his way to college, with a family behind him and a sister. I was now smaller in the world’s view and insignificant, and possibly invisible. All of which made me feel closer to death than life. Which is not how fifteen-year-old boys should feel.
As Dell, in older age, asks himself questions about what came to pass, how and why and when it all began to go wrong, his questions instruct the reader how the story should be approached. The structural function of the questions forces the reader into the temporal circularity of memory that Dell himself is in as he exhumes the bodies for investigation. It is testimony to the confidence of Ford’s storytelling that, given we already know what happens in a bank in North Dakota, the “why” of the story keeps the reader gripped. Moreover, while the writing is speculative and self-reflexive, for the character it stops well short of being self-obsessed.
This is because much of the book’s seduction is from Dell’s voice. It has a medical, articulated coolness, which is not to say it is cold, far from it; each chapter reveals another level of unspoken, intimated heartbreak. Any calamity which is taking place in the plot is mediated through the masterfully controlled voice of Dell’s older self who is also censored through the book’s form—the retelling of a story after many years of clarification. These are not adolescent outpourings.
It is this distilled voice and the beautiful specificity of the physical description which save the book from becoming a fictional version of a misery memoir.
...the iron cot I slept on (...) and the ‘kitchen room,’ with the bumpy red linoleum and a single fluorescent ceiling ring and a two-burner hot plate where I boiled tar-smelling pump water in a pan to make my bath at night.
As one would expect of a big-name author writing a big American book, there are big American questions here too. As a running thread, and as a natural binary to the quest for what is ‘normal’, is the issue of ‘otherness’. Dell’s mother, Neeva, is Jewish and, as we are constantly told, looks different, which is accepted in the Parson’s family as explanation enough as to why she never has friends or fits in and then is in some way is offered up as explanation for her actions. Dell doesn’t fit in at school and has no friends and his twin sister, the beautifully rendered Berner, is lanky, awkward and otherwise—to the end. The American Indian community is also implicated in the story’s trajectory. They too don’t have anywhere to be in the world, apart from the scrap-heap reservations, and they too transgress legal norms. Those who don’t fit in, have no way of fitting in because what is ‘normal’ has no place for them. They must by default, transgress. Who they are, simply by their existence, has already crossed a line, national border line or other.
In Canada, the mercurial Arthur Remlinger wears his otherness proudly even though it has ultimately led to his ruin. He, like Dell is exiled in Canada which Dell tells us is like America, but not. It is America-lite. There is room for the strange and the transgressive even if they are consigned to the amoral apolitical no man’s land of Saskatchewan. Case in point, Ford offers up Charley, the make-up wearing Metis. He shoots geese and digs pits and yet we and Dell are under no illusion that he presents some sort of sexual threat to the boy. This is the exile that awaits those who do not toe the American line.
We need to bear in mind that this book, six years in the writing, was born in an America where “you are either with us, or you are against us.” America, as Dell Parsons finds out, has no room for any ‘otherness’ that does not endorse the status quo and what the good folk of Great Falls can be quantified as ‘normal’. Canada, might just as well have been ‘America’ as it again scratches as the scab of the pioneer insecurity and asks what it means to be American.
Canada is a novel with big lungs and soft poetry. It will excite you and break your heart and it should take its place among the great books of the decade.